- Tropics of Haiti: Race and the Literary History of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World, 1789–1865 by Marlene L. Daut
BY MARLENE L. DAUT
Liverpool UP, 2017.
xii + 692 pp. ISBN 9781781381847 cloth.
This impressive volume is an extended, in-depth survey of the multiple reflections of "racial" thinking that have haunted representations and assessments of Haitian literature and culture over time: from the origins of this discourse in biological pseudo-science to its ascriptions of revolution and bad governance to a biology of being. Formidable in its depth, breadth, and scope, it is arguably the most comprehensive study on this subject published to date. It demonstrates clearly the broad acceptance of the myth that variations in skin color could be inscribed onto a sort of knowability scale, such that mulattoes and other mixed-race subjects were made to take the blame for their "monstrous hybridity," the "ferocious character" it unleashed being the root cause of the Haitian Revolution and its aftermath.
Daut illustrates clearly and incontrovertibly that race and racial thinking have long been seen as a multipronged instrument with economic, social, and biological implications, creating a taxonomic perspective whose core framework undergirded colonial and imperial analyses of Haitian society and its predilections, such that the "bloody character" of the revolution was repeatedly laid at the door of a "juncture of African, European and Creole influences" (71).
Chapter 1 lays out the negative origins and connotations of the term "creole" in 17th- and 18th-century travel writing. Such subjects were seen as naturally violent and vengeful (78), their "miscegenation" represented as "degenerative . . . an assemblage of traits perceived as clashing, disconsonant, and incompatible" (76–77). They were eventually made to bear the brunt of the blame for every negative aspect of this colonial slave society. Here, the system of racial classification [End Page 216] invented by Moreau de Saint-Méry played a key role, while Chapter 2 considers how the foundational role of Baron de Vastey, secretary to King Henry Christophe, was both personal and political; his "status as the apparently phenotypically 'white' son of a slaveholder who argued that Haiti should be ruled by a 'black' former slave" highlights what she calls "the three conflicting ways of reading Vastey's own race in the nineteenth century ('mulatto,' 'negro,' and 'white')" (113). While Vastey forcefully pointed out that European historians "have made mistakes with respect to what they have written about Haiti," he was eventually done in by the "colonial racism" that undergirded "the lugubrious image of Haiti . . . in the . . . literary and historical imagination[s]" (151), a trope of the monstrous hybrid that became widespread.
Daut demonstrates clearly the extent to which tropes of racial degeneracy—centering on fixations of fatal flaws in moral character arising out of mixed-race liaisons—overdetermined a range of fictional, historical, and memorialist discourses emanating from Haiti, France, and the US. For example, she highlights Joan Dayan's key question about the "real lives" of women of color given the "obvious tropology of women of color as highly dangerous 'tropical temptresses'" in "much of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writing from Saint-Domingue" (198). This essentialism of colonial discourse tended more broadly to equate mulattoes with illegitimacy in 19th-century France and Haiti, blaming the annihilation of the family and the destruction of the nation on the innate criminality of the tragic mulatto/a even as it inadvertently placed whites in question. Exposing "the logic of slavery's sexual, racial, and legal politics" (363) illuminates the ways in which "the 'interracial' family are figured as unnatural" (364), with offspring "presented as tragic both because of the inherent violence that had produced them and the unnatural violence their positions might occasion" (404).
Daut also outlines clearly the extent to which literature—more specifically literary representations of creolized New World populations—were complicit in inscribing the "monstrous hybrid" as the source of vengeance, violence, and destruction. French, Haitian, and American authors were all equally guilty of propagating these stereotypes, which were incontrovertibly drenched in the fear of racial mixing. From Victor...